Catholic Treasures Books


Mark Alessio

It's probably safe to say that, at one time, a goodly number of people converted to Catholicism because they were confronted with, and ultimately charmed with, the "Catholic Mood." Those readers fortunate enough to have attended Catholic schools before the "Spirit" of Vatican II slouched its way towards Bethlehem may recall this mood as one characterized by silence and color: the silence of a dark confessional, a small mysterious place separated from the ebb and flow of the mundane world by a purple curtain that seemed to weigh a ton, and the pages of sacred history rendered in stained-glass, ivory doves, blood-red cloaks and golden chalices whose hues flared and subsided as the morning sun vanished and reappeared.

In his "Ode to the Setting Sun," Francis Thompson wrote these words:

The Catholic Mood is a "strange passion," indeed. It's source is that very God who is "not dead," that God who, far from being the miserly, sadistic puritan of the hip atheistic set, is instead the archetype of the "Artist." Anyone who persists in believing that our God is that petty despot who is the constant thorn in the side of feminists and other activists should take another look at such creations as ostriches, giraffes, giant squids...or the Painted Desert. If it is anything, the Catholic Mood is an appreciation of, or a sharing in, that Divine creativity -- that magnificent blend of imagination, passion and irony that infuses the "good things" that life has to offer, those elements that give us pause and refreshment from the myriad annoyances and frustrations which measure the passage of the days even more accurately than clocks and sundials. In plain English, it means that a Catholic has the option, if not the duty, of viewing everyday life as something "interesting." Just as, through the Communion of Saints, we are physically and spiritually connected to all the Catholics who have gone before us, so, via the cultivation of the Catholic Mood, we can enjoy the things life has to offer to the same degree and in the same manner as those Catholics of bygone centuries did. There are no "fads" with the Holy Trinity. A cup of cool water would taste as miraculous to someone lost in the desert at the end of the 3rd century as it would to someone lost in the desert at the end of the 20th century. In both cases, the very texture and feel of the water would border on the sublime, and no amount of education on the properties of liquids could make it more so.

Think of Our Lord's words during the Sermon on the Mount:

It is no coincidence that Catholicism is a Faith of "firsts:" the first universities, the first hospitals, the first great musical works, the first great masters in the art of painting. And yet all this magnificent art, this entire legacy of beauty unique and critical in the history of the entireworld, finds its meaning and purpose in that Lord Who's greatest claim on His own behalf was His meekness. The Gospels are filled with a sense of the "everyday," with scenes and activities that are entirely normal, save for one feature: He was there, turning these daily events into extraordinary ones. Such imagery is all pervasive: the first public miracle of Jesus Christ occurring at a wedding feast, the multiplication of the loaves and fish transpiring because people were hungry, Heaven itself being described as a marriage feast in one of the parables, the Holy Mass being instituted after the Paschal meal, more parables filled with vineyards, husbandmen and a Prodigal Son who returns home to nothing less than a blast, a no-holds-barred party that his friends were probably still remembering fondly years afterwards.

Such pleasures and images lose none of their appeal as the centuries pass. Perhaps it was this realization that caused G. K. Chesterton to coin the phrase "Beef & Beer" as a snapshot, if you will...a symbol of the deep, robust enjoyment and pleasure Our Creator intends us to derive from His bounty. This pithy phrase can just as easily conjure up the image of Chaucer's pilgrims seated before their tankards and plates at a roadside inn, as it can a group of friends enjoying a pint of ale and a burger at a pub in downtown Manhattan. Chesterton was, as usual, right on the money when he described conversion as "the beginning of an active, progressive and even adventurous life of the intellect." We have to note here that Chesterton says "life of the intellect," and not merely "intellectual life." There is a difference. Anyone who's traveled to Italy and had the pleasure of sharing a meal with the older farmers and vintners learns very quickly that no one alive can tell a story like one of these men or their wives. The spell of food, wine and company spurs the intellect in a way different from that of a seminar or lecture. The latter "teach." The former "inspire." It's hard to imagine Our Lord standing at a podium in a huge auditorium; the closest we get to this in the Gospels is the time He read and preached in the Synagogue. But the most profound words ever uttered on this earth, those uttered by the Redeemer of Mankind, were done so around dinner-tables, or sitting in breezy clearings, or while treading dirt roads.

And yet, there was also something "set apart" where Our Lord was concerned. As often as He walked among the people, He would also go away to someplace quiet, either alone or with His Apostles. Wherever He was, there was a "sanctuary," a place different from all others. In the Middle Ages, that idea of "cloister," that silent, sacred place set aside from the world, took form in stone and wood, and the monasteries of those ages that still stand today captivate us. And well they should. Because the Catholic Mood links both the "overt" and the "hidden," the natural with the supernatural. If all things are referred to Christ and the teachings of His Church for their meaning and beauty, then the pilgrims gathered around the table at a roadside pub, warmed by a roaring fire, and the monks huddled in a cold, darkened chapel for Compline, both share in the same Divine bounty and are surrounded (whether conscious of it or not) by the very same Catholic Mood.

If recognized, this mood will teach us something that will make our earthly lives richer and more enjoyable: the distinction between the common and the mundane. They are not the same, and they're deliberately confused by a society captivated by trinkets. No doubt, the Holy Family of Nazareth lived a common life. Their unassuming house was a little piece of Heaven on earth, from which God only knows how many graces flowed. Yet, only an utter fool would imagine the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to have been a mundane one. Imagine our own pleasure when, spurred by hunger, we enjoy something delicious. What enjoyment must God Himself have taken in a piece of sweet fruit or a loaf of warm bread? How much pleasure must Our Lady, sinless and loving, have taken whenever her neighbors or relatives came to share with her news of upcoming marriages or births? St. Joseph, looking up to the stars at the end of a busy day, and thinking that His Lord and Redeemer ate at his table, must have relished the evening breezes to a degree that modern intellectuals would perhaps only allow to "artistes" and poets. Mundane? Anything but! Common? Blissfully so, in accord with the wishes of the God who became like unto us in everything except sin.

The Catholic Mood is not a manufactured one. True, our Faith is "incarnational." We're human beings, and we like art, food, music and diversions. But, the Mood precedes artistic appreciation and actually gives us the ability to enjoy such things. If the Catholic Mood could be manufactured, hundreds of thousands of "Chant" CD's and tapes wouldn't be lying forgotten in so many people's music collections. No, one can generate an image of misty courtyards or candlelit cloister walks by popping an Early Music CD into the stereo, but the same effect can be obtained by viewing, say, a film like "Excalibur." When Catholicism lies at the root of one's existence, when it informs the conscience and, not least of all, gives a real, visceral pleasure to the one who holds it closely, then the intellect is set free, which is just what Our Lord promised us.

If you look at some of the glossy "Catholic" magazines on sale today, you will eventually find one purporting to recommend "good" Catholic books. And you know what authors you'll find listed even before reading the article: Grahame Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Manzoni, Dante, etc. However, the Catholic is at liberty to recognize quality wherever he finds it, to sift through everything the world has to offer and select what really edifies and pleases.

Look at this passage from a modern "classic," describing a scene which anyone who's ever walked the streets of a large city in the early hours of the morning can recognize only too well:

Now, look at this passage from another "classic," describing the thoughts of a young priest, exhausted by torture, awaiting execution during "reformation" England:

Here are two powerful quotations from two very different books -- the first, from one of the most highly regarded works of modern crime fiction, The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett (published in 1949) and the second, from one of the greatest Catholic novels of our century, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's Come Rack! Come Rope! (published in 1912).

The quote from The Asphalt Jungle contains a dark, brooding atmosphere that wouldn't be out of place in a description of a Gothic scene, for the same moonlight falls on the gray stones of both cathedral and skyscraper; there is an appropriate, though different, beauty to each. The quote from Come Rack! Come Rope! carries us from the external vista of neon and rain-slicked streets to an internal one, to the intense, anguished and hopeful thoughts of a 16th-century Catholic priest, brutalized and condemned for his love of Christ and His Church. The books are so different. One describes lives devoid of faith, where desperation and opportunity play with each other like cat and mouse; the other chronicles the triumph of weak flesh, sustained by the promises of the Savior, over the Devil and his snares.

"Catholic" means "universal." Our God has taken all things, set them before us, and told us to use them. The Son of God is pictured so often in the Sacred Scriptures sitting down, surrounded by disciples and the curious, and relating stories and parables. Why did the first great Churches and Cathedrals tell stories in stained-glass, paint and marble? Why were Catholic Churches, before the recent liturgical pogroms, places of music and shadow, where the crimson Blood of Christ filling the chalice found its hues mirrored in the red glass of the sanctuary lamp?

The Catholic Mood is a thread that winds back throughout history, keeping all good things vital, whether they were created a millenium ago, or just last month. Inspired by a search for good things, we can take as much pleasure in a slow, expressive instrumental by John Coltrane as we can in the angular harmonies of 12th-century Organum, knowing full well that one definitely belongs in Church, while the other definitely does not! Resting in the glow of this Mood, Chaucer's pilgrim and the 20th-century pub-crawler meet at one table and enjoy things together...because it is Christ to whom is given thanks for such gifts. Without this mood, daily life is sterile, like a "church" without the Blessed Sacrament.

Without this Mood, any pleasures and respites from the daily grind are disconnected events, "accidents" in the framework of annoyances and problems that fill most days. A box of puzzle-pieces is NOT a "picture," and won't become one until the pieces are connected to each other. So must pleasures and enjoyments be connected to our Faith and referred to the bounty of the Holy Trinity. As long as "branches" remain connected to the "Vine," they remain perennial. So, if our enjoyments are appreciated as gifts of Christ and our Blessed Mother, they will always please and satisfy. In this "timeless" appreciation of God's bounty, some images will traverse the passing of the centuries almost unchanged: a bride and groom at a wedding reception, friends gathered at table, a chorus singing polyphony in a Church choir loft. Other pleasures may contain the fundamentals, but in modern trappings. Countless centuries ago, a king may have sat in his hall, fascinated, as a bard related the story of Odysseus. A modern man sitting in a movie theatre may get chillsduring the closing scene of "Citizen Kane." Shakespeare knew how to tell a story. So did Raymond Chandler.

The "Catholic Mood" is a way of life, a way of thanking Our Lord and Our Lady for all things that bring pleasure, no matter how disparate such things may be, and no matter how uneven in final "worth" they may be. No one in their right mind would compare the Tridentine Mass to a film or novel. We give thanks to God after Mass, for the graces offered, for the privilege of being allowed to assist, and for the sheer beauty of it.

There is nothing to stop us from saying a short prayer of thanks to Christ and our Blessed Mother every once in a while for those other things, the "common" ones we look forward too, the ones that, because of their very familiarity, we are in danger of considering "mundane." The Catholic Mood, if appreciated, is an antidote to this familiarity. It is importantto recognize and cultivate, if one is to live life "abundantly," which is what Our Lord wants us to do. And it's ours for the asking and the taking, gratis and uncomplicated. It's a great deal, by any standards.

So, just how important is our ability to relate pleasures and enjoyments to eternity? Where do the simple pleasures of hearth and friendship stand in relation to the Last Things? Let's go to the Source:

We can't add one inch to our stature or turn our hair black or white, but our God has allowed us to share in his Creative ability by appreciating created things, all the time keeping them in perspective. Paintings, novels, marvels of architecture and gourmet meals are the pride of the ones who fashion them, and the pleasure of those who behold or partake of them. The Holy Trinity have signed their Names to rivers, sunsets, the haunting songs and cries of animals, not to mention the metals from which musical instruments are made and the cows that meet their fitting ends in steaming plates of Beef Wellington. A true father won't give a stone to a child that asks for bread. When your Father is God, be prepared for good things.

The Catholic Mood is a trait that adds a "spark" to the soul, like incense during Mass. As created beings, we marvel at created things, at "creativity" itself. As Catholics, blessedwith a Sacramental life, we understand that created objects can be useful, enjoyed...sometimes even blessed and sanctified. A modest meal with a close friend, or the sight of a huge cathedral -- both will touch the heart because of their intrinsic value, their ability to connect us with the One through Whose goodness we have them to enjoy in the first place.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet, seemed to capture this sense of things, of the Natural giving expression to the Supernatural, in his poem, "God's Grandeur":

In the end, it all comes down to the Mercy of Our Lord, who allows us to wander through this grandeur, to indulge the "strange passion" that causes us to look heavenwards even as we enjoy the things of this earth. The passing of centuries counts for nothing here; everything good is "new." In this frame of mind, sunlight only helps us to enjoy the shadows more. Our Lord, knowing our weaknesses and anxieties, promised us many things, and His word holds fast now and forever.

The "Catholic Mood" is no talisman against adversity, insufferable relatives, insupportable bosses, high taxes or poor health. But it has power nonetheless. Keep that in mind the next time you read Dante.......or Damon Runyon.

Our Lord could have given us a world without music, the alphabet or the Grand Canyon. But He chose to give us these things and more, right down to His very Body and Blood. We'll never be able to thank Him adequately, but we can at least think of Him and Our Lady whenever we realize that something in this confused world of ours has given us real pleasure.

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Catholic Treasures - Traditional Catholic Books on Saints, Prayers, and the Roman Catholic Church